FilmSoc screens ‘Donnie Darko’ – Teen angst meets existentialism

Caroline Colvin explains how Donnie Darko remains a touchstone of millennial film culture.

Woozy time travel, a loveable bad boy, a hulking, mangy hare and a trippy, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ending: no one watches Donnie Darko and forgets about it. Since the film hit cinemas sixteen years ago, its generations of viewers have been touched by unease and confusion. And it’s this confusion, for better or worse, that has defined the legacy of Donnie Darko.

Donnie Darko, Gretchen Ross and Frank the Rabbit at the cinema

I was too young to watch Donnie Darko when it was first released in theatres. In 2001, my cinematic tastes were just shifting from Toy Story and Mulan to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films. So, as many people my age have told me, Donnie Darko arrived in early high school.

It came at the perfect time. When I wasn’t rolling my uniform skirt and smudging on Taylor Momsen levels of black eyeshadow, I was rocking fingerless gloves, piles of lace and a healthy heaping of plaid. Marilyn Manson was my style icon. Something dark and early 2000s like Donnie Darko seemed right up my alley.

Along with being smitten with its titular character (a mouthy but thoughtful Jake Gyllenhaal), I remember finishing the film in an impressed but stunned haze. I sat there thinking, “Okay, so what the hell did I just watch?”

Speaking with my peers, I found that therein lies the beauty of the film. Donnie Darko taught us young millennials, who were just developing our philosophical compass, how to think more existentially.

Little exchanges like “Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?” “Why do you wear that stupid man suit?” sparked that metaphysical consciousness. What does it mean to exist on this Earth? In this time frame?

Now, more than a decade removed from its release, Donnie Darko has become a film we can watch over and over again. There will always be something new to pick up on.

Donnie Darko and his English teacher, Karen Pomeroy

For all its darkness, the romance struck up with Gretchen Ross (an endearing Jena Malone), Drew Barrymore’s cameo as Donnie’s English teacher, and the Smurf sex discussion still sparkle all these years later.

And of course, Donnie getting ahold of the microphone and cheekily proclaiming to Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), “I think you’re the fucking Antichrist,” never fails to elicit chaotic glee. You’d be hard-pressed circa 2012 to find a soft grunge or pastel blog on Tumblr that didn’t have a desaturated or black & white gif of Donnie calmly destroying a school assembly.

Another gem that stands the test of time is the soundtrack. The tunes setting that dark and dreamy, late ‘80s mood are oft cited as the film’s selling points.

Gretchen and Donnie’s party scene is book-ended by “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and The Church’s “Under the Milky Way.”

The film is credited, too, with helping Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” pop off; and to this day, whenever I hear “The Killing Moon” by Echo & Bunnymen, my mind flashes to Donnie Darko.

Despite the fondness the film conjures up for millennials, not all memories are nostalgic. Sometimes, watching Donnie Darko post-high school reveals that your obsession with this boy and this rabbit and this esoteric, jumbly storyline was just a hallmark of your hipster phase. There is also the tough question of mental health portrayal. Donnie’s schizophrenia can be eye-opening to a young person sorting out their own mental health issues. But looking back as a better informed adult, you wonder.

Perhaps there is a dangerous slant, wherein Donnie Darko isn’t just representation. It might be accused of glamorization of mental illnesses and romanticization of suicide. How fair is it to folks with schizophrenia that Donnie’s episodes are tied to violence and his hallucinations are simply plot devices?

And for some, that first-watch confusion also did not age well.


As Roger Ebert wrote of Donnie Darko when it came out, “I could tell you what I think happens at the end, and what the movie is about, but I would not be sure I was right… The plot wheel revolves one time too many, and we’re left scratching our heads. We don’t demand answers at the end, but we want some kind of closure.”

Naturally, many millennials, who saw it when I did, hopped on the Internet ASAP to get some answers. That in itself speaks volumes about the legacy of Donnie DarkoWe were far enough down the line that Donnie Darko had cemented its cult status. So we watched with a treasure trove of discourse on Reddit already available at our fingertips.

But still, for some, the lack of explanations don’t come off as clever or poetic. Donnie Darko feels unfinished and convoluted.

What was perhaps once our misguided #RelationshipGoals

Be that all as it may, love it or hate it, Donnie has left his mark on our generation. Even for those lukewarm on its merits, the film comes highly recommended. And if not our warmly held Halloween-time favourite, at least Donnie Darko can be a reminder of why we started watching difficult films in the first place.

Donnie Darko will be screened tomorrow November 15th, at 6pm. VENUE: Drayton House B03 Ricardo LT. >> FACEBOOK EVENT <<

For future screenings and other events check out our Facebook page.

One thought on “FilmSoc screens ‘Donnie Darko’ – Teen angst meets existentialism

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